Five Steps to Becoming a Better, More Effective Legal Writer

The movement to encourage lawyers to write in “plain English” is nothing new.  In fact, when I went to law school over 15 years ago we were counseled to avoid using fancy legalese and unnecessary verbiage in our legal briefs.

If you are paying attention, you’ll see that I just broke that rule – three times.   I was pretty obvious about it; most people would agree that the second sentence above would have been better if I had said “we were taught to avoid using fancy legal terms and unnecessary words in our legal briefs.”    But when you are a lawyer, it is not always easy – or effective – to simplify your words into plain English.  In fact, many would argue that lawyers need to write “like a lawyer” to be taken seriously and to insure that what they say is legally accurate.  Some even say that if you write in a way that everyone can understand,  people will stop thinking they need lawyers.  Or so the argument goes.

As both a lawyer and writing coach, I tend to fall closer toward the plain English side of things.   Too often I’ve seen lawyers use overly exaggerated legal phrases as a way to mask a poor legal argument, sub-par writing skills, or both.  The tactic rarely works, and the reader is often left feeling confused, irritated and un-convinced of whatever message the writer was trying to send.

And when you are a writer – legal or otherwise – it all comes down to your message.  Your reader needs to hear it, understand it, and then do with it what you want them to.   Yes, I did just end that sentence with a preposition.  Sometimes you have to break the “rules” to make the most sense. 

Some people are naturally strong writers.  Others have to work hard at it, and getting even a couple of decent sentences down on paper can feel like torture.   But whether or not you consider yourself a good writer, the following tips will help you improve whatever you are trying to say:

1.            Know your message

Why are you writing?  Do you want to persuade, educate, request action?  Before you start to write, try to summarize your purpose and message in a detailed, yet focused, sentence or two.  Think about what you want your audience to ultimately know.   

2.            Give your audience a roadmap

If you are writing anything longer than a couple of paragraphs, tell your readers up front what you want them to know and make it easy for them to find that information.   In this piece, for example, I told you right away that I was going to give you five ways to improve your writing.  If you wanted, you could have skipped my introductory paragraphs and gone right to the “meat” of the article – the numbered list – and still gotten the majority of my message.

3.            Eliminate unnecessary words and phrases

Before you file, send, publish or post something you have written, read it out loud.  Listen for wordy phrases, run-on sentences, redundancies and anything else that causes you to take a breath in the middle of reading.  Instead of describing something as “red in color”, just say it was red.   You rarely need to “apprise” someone; telling him or her will do just fine.   If the accident happened because the stoplight was broken, you do not need to say that the accident “resulted because of the fact that the stoplight was malfunctioning.”  And you get the idea.

4.            Use “legalese” appropriately

Sometimes lawyers need to sound like lawyers.  The important thing is to know when you need to use a legal term of art in your writing and when you do not.  Words like “heretofore” are rarely necessary, but  an argument that the plaintiff is “collaterally estopped” may be the only way to be legally accurate.  Before using a legal term, make sure you have a rational justification for your word choice, and eliminate the words that are not needed to make your point.

5.            Know your message

I’m listing this twice because it is so important.  If you do not have a message, there is no reason to be writing in the first place. 

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Using Social Media to Find New Customers: First Things First

Welcome to The GhostWriters’ first blog post.  We’ll be writing about improving your writing skills, how lawyers (and others) can take advantage of social media for business purposes, legal matters, small business issues, and anything else we think is important.  The post below originally appeared in slightly different form at http://voices.yahoo.com/email-etiquette-remember-basics-good-business-10883913.html

Email Etiquette: Remember the Basics of Good Business

As a freelance writer, I’m as interested as the next business person in discovering new ways to advertise my services, find new clients, and generally get my name out there.  Assuming it’s the right name, that is.

Over the past three or four months, I’ve received the same email in my business account every couple of weeks from a woman named Heather at a company called “Thumbtack.com.”

“Are you a ghostwriter?” asks the subject line.  Why, yes, I am a ghostwriter.   I opened the first email feeling rather smug that my fledgling website and attempts at SEO had caught the attention of a potential client with almost no effort on my part.   Maybe this would be the beginning of a long and lucrative business relationship.  Maybe it really was “that” easy to expand my freelance writing business.

“Hey Melani,” that first email (and all subsequent ones) began.  And that quickly, with the omission of a single “e” at the end of my name, it was all over.

From what I could gather from a brief look at Thumbtack’s website, the company is a sort of on-line Yellow Pages; type your service need into the search box and up pop profiles from dozens of freelancers and small businesses that want your business.   A search for “ghostwriters” resulted in 150 providers supposedly in my area; most were located between 25 and 400 miles away.

I’m not knocking the service Thumbtack.com provides.  In this age of electronic marketing and digital communication, similar companies are everywhere, filling a need for small businesses and individuals who may not be able to afford expensive and time-consuming marketing campaigns.  But by spelling my name wrong in its message to me, Thumbtack immediately lost credibility and thus, my business.

In addition to being a legal and business ghostwriter, I also give seminars to lawyers and business people on how to build strong relationships with clients and potential customers by improving their writing and communication skills.  E-mail can be a powerful (and inexpensive and easy) way to communicate, if used thoughtfully and correctly.  The most important rule of email “netiquette” I teach in my seminar is that you should treat your emails as seriously as you do other forms of communication.   Ensuring that the name of your recipient is correct before you contact them should be a no-brainer.

These days, it seems like there is a new social media trend created every minute.  People are retweeting, sharing, posting, pinning and linking all day long.  With so many ways to communicate, mistakes become even more likely.  Therefore, double and triple checking everything you send out into the world wide web is a must.

Thumbtack did get one thing right: it used a simple, to-the-point subject line that got my attention.  It got me to open the email and see what it had to say instead of immediately hitting “delete” when I didn’t recognize the sender.   But getting a potential client to open your email doesn’t matter if the message inside is confusing, irrelevant or mistaken.   I’m sure Thumbtack didn’t intend to make me think that it couldn’t make the small effort of copying my name correctly off my website.  But that is the message I got, even before I had the chance to see what the company really had to say.   And that is too bad.